Filmmakers mess with viewers' childhood memories at their peril, so Steven Spielberg is taking a risk tackling Tintin.
In the United States, the teenage adventurer is an acquired taste, known mainly to Europhiles and comic fans. But for millions around the world, the globe-trotting young journalist is a beloved childhood friend -- the most famous comic-book reporter since Peter Parker and Clark Kent. Unlike those characters, Tintin has no superhero alter ego, just an unquenchable curiosity and a white terrier named Snowy who more than matches his master in resourcefulness and pluck.
The archetypal American Spielberg may seem an odd choice to bring this European hero to the big screen, but Spielberg has been an admirer since a critic compared the Tintin stories to his "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Belgian cartoonist Herge, who created Tintin in the 1920s, gave Spielberg his blessing before his death in 1983.
And it turns out Spielberg is perfect, his love of vintage Saturday afternoon serials exactly in sync with the spirit of the comic book yarns. "The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn" is a nostalgia-tinged romp, blending thrilling chases, quirky characters and sly humor -- a sort of Young Indiana Jones: Brussels Edition. The original comics, particularly the notorious 1931 story "Tintin in the Congo," have been accused of colonialism and ethnic stereotyping, but the film carefully avoids controversial terrain.
The movie, adapted from three of Herge's original stories, follows Tintin (played by Jamie Bell, who starred in the movie "Billy Elliot") as he joins forces with Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a whisky-soaked seaman who becomes his friend and ally, in a race against nefarious Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig) to pirate treasure and the secret of a lost galleon, the Unicorn.
It's a sign of how big Tintin is around the world that the film debuts internationally on Oct. 26, almost two months before its Dec. 21 U.S. opening -- time, producers hope, to build a global buzz and intrigue American audiences.
The movie's most contentious feature, for some viewers, will be Spielberg's decision to use performance capture technology, in which live actors are recorded digitally, then layered with computer animation to create finished characters and sets.
The animation was handled by the WETA visual-effects house of "The Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson, who produced "The Adventures of Tintin."
Some viewers may see it as a "plasticky" halfway house between live action and animation, but Spielberg uses it to create some exhilarating action sequences, including a madcap motorcycle chase through a Moroccan souk. The European detail of vintage automobiles, dusty shops and rain-slicked cobblestones is lovingly rendered, and there are moments of wit and visual surrealism to please adults as well as children.
The technology's slick superficiality is not so good at capturing emotion, despite the best efforts of a largely British cast. Bell's Tintin is almost as flat as his pen-and-ink forebear. Bumbling bowler-hatted detectives Thomson and Thompson are played by frequent collaborators Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, but little of the pair's comic rapport comes through.
Only Serkis (the performance-capture Olivier, veteran of the technique from "The Lord of the Rings," "King Kong" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes") transcends the limitations of the form. He wrings blood, bile, laughter and tears from the soused Haddock, whose alcoholism is somewhat uneasily played for both laughs and pathos.
The film ends on a note that makes a sequel -- which Jackson is lined up to direct -- a near certainty, and a third film is planned if all goes well.
Will the movie please all Tintin fans? Probably not. The script by Britons Steven Moffat, Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright has taken enough liberties with Herge's plots and characters to infuriate purists. But it has a light touch, a brisk pace and considerable charm, perfect family fare for casual viewers.
"The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn," a Paramount Pictures/Columbia Pictures release. Rated PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking. Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.